This week, the Criterion Collection releases Watership Down , Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel. It’s one of the few animated films in the collection to date, but don’t go gathering up the kids, movie nerds — from the moment little Fiver gets his apocalyptic vision, wherein “The field… the field… it’s covered with blood!,” it’s very clear that this is one cartoon that’s not for the kiddies. But it’s also a terrific movie, reminding us that too often, the seemingly malleable form of the animated feature film is consigned to family entertainment and left there. Here are a few notable exceptions.
The rabbits in Watership Down spend most of the film at risk of attack (from dogs, birds, rats, cats, pretty much every other animal); it’s full of graphic bloodshed, deaths, and near-deaths; and much of the imagery is outright nightmare fuel. It ain’t Bugs Bunny, in other words — it’s an unrelentingly grim, bleak political parable. It’s also involving, frequently harrowing storytelling, a journey film of undeniable tension (the sequence in a seemingly abandoned warren is brilliant) and surprising pathos. The animation is utilitarian at best and cheap at worst, like the cutout style of late-‘70s Saturday morning cartoons, but it’s oddly effective — placing this story in the stylistic realm of our childhood comfort television, and then using that sense of comfort to bludgeon us over the head.
Fritz the Cat
The granddaddy of grown-up cartoons, this 1972 X-rated animated feature (the first to carry that rating) was a counterculture sensation and the launching pad for Ralph Bakshi, who would become one of the few marquee names in the adult cartoon business. Based on the notorious Robert Crumb comic strip, the picture not only accepted the X rating, but embraced it; the original posters declared, “We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!” Bakshi initially objected to the exploitative marketing, but it worked; the picture grossed $25 million in the United States (on a scant $850k budget) and $90 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films, live-action or animated, up to that time. It would also spawn an (R-rated) sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat — made without the participation of Bakshi, who followed up with several more adult-oriented animated features, including Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Wizard, American Pop, Hey Good Lookin’, and Fire and Ice.
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle
One of Fritz’s more direct descendants was this bestiality-heavy French/Belgian spoof of the Tarzan legend, originally released in France in 1975. Though successful there, its first attempt at a US release in 1978 tanked; in the six years since Fritz, the X rating had come to stand for hardcore pornography, and the film’s distributors were unable to convince theaters to run it. So they hit on a solution: hire Americans to rewrite and redub it for domestic audiences and, in the process, soften its rating to an R. The writers they chose are why the film is remembered, even vaguely, today: Saturday Night Live legends Anne Beatts and Michael O’Donaughue, who in turn convinced SNL regulars John Belushi and Bill Murray to contribute voice performances, along with friends like Brian Doyle-Murray and Christopher Guest. Johnny Weissmuller Jr., son of the screen’s most famous Tarzan, also participated, voicing the lead character. But the film never got any traction, thanks to the elder Weissmuller bad-mouthing the film and, more damagingly, a suit from the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs that claimed trademark infringement and forced the distributors to change its title while it was still in theaters.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
But Fritz’s most obvious offspring is the rude, brash humor of South Park, brought to the screen in the summer of 1999 for its first (and, oddly, thus far only) feature-film incarnation. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to their credit, didn’t just spit out a 90-minute episode of their TV show. In addition to the film’s masterful musical numbers (hinting at the Book of Mormon to come), they turned the film into a meta-text about the influence of pop culture — which would prove oddly, eerily timely with its release two months after the Columbine massacre — and the silliness of the movie rating system, provoking knowing chuckles from movie-goers who often saw it after multiple rounds of carding and ticket-checking at their local theaters.
This 1981 sci-fi/fantasy anthology film, based on the magazine of the same name, is pretty serious stuff, but it’s still got a surprising number of comedy names in the credits: Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters, Twins, Dave, and many more) co-produces, from a screenplay by Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg (who wrote Reitman’s Meatballs and Stripes), with a voice cast that includes John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis. Full of graphic violence, sex, and a hard-rockin’ soundtrack featuring the likes of Devo, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick, it was a box-office smash and midnight-movie favorite, prompting a 2000 sequel and endless talk of a remake.
Honestly, you could fill out this entire list with examples of anime (or whatever you’d label adult-oriented Asian animation), but we’ll keep it to two essentials. Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 classic (based on his manga of the same name) is deeply disturbing, frequently violent, and nightmarishly striking — it’s also pretty much indecipherable if you’re unfamiliar with the source material. But the storytelling wasn’t the takeaway here anyway; it was the film’s style, which would influence Western action and sci-fi for years to come.
Grave of the Fireflies
At the other end of the spectrum, yet coming from the same country in the same year, is Isao Takahata’s mournful, elegiac meditation on the end of the Second World War. Telling the story of two Japanese children made homeless by the dropping of the atomic bomb, it is, per Roger Ebert, “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation… This film proves, if it needs proving, that animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences.”
Waltz With Bashir
Like Grave, Ari Folman’s Oscar nominee uses animation to dramatize a story of the horrors of war. Yet he also creates a hybrid form; as a filmmaker’s first-person journey to the heart of a painful and suppressed memory, featuring interviews with friends, colleagues, witnesses, and experts, it sounds like a standard documentary. But he uses a cut-out animation style to put a greater emphasis on the look of the film than most documentaries allow. And with total control of his visual palate, he can create images that are sometimes surreal and dreamlike, sometimes strikingly natural and real — and most importantly, that create a merging of the past and present.
The barnyard story of pigs, donkeys, dogs, horses, and hens is, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, no Charlotte’s Web; based on the classic George Orwell novel, this 1954 film adaptation is a nasty piece of work, a political tale supplemented with violence, death, and mutiny. It’s also got an agenda of its own — two decades after its release, Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt revealed himself as the point man for the film’s funding and production by the CIA (uncredited, obviously), who quietly changed the novel’s ending and repurposed it from commentary into propaganda.
Though it’s R-rated, it’s not like there’s anything all that objectionable for young moviegoers in Richard Linklater’s visionary 2001 feature. More than anything, it’s just hard to imagine a little kid sitting through it for long before throwing up her hands, wondering what all these stoners are talking about, and digging out Frozen.